Friday, 18 February 2011

Zero: the biography of a dangerous idea – Charles Seife ***

There are two books on zero, The Nothing that Is by Robert Kaplan, which we reviewed in a rather summary fashion some time ago, and Zero, which slipped through the net first time around, but is now out in a new paperback edition.
In Zero, Charles Seife tells us very effectively why zero is so important to mathematics (and would help the calendar be less confusing). He gives us a good, if relatively short, exploration of the origins of zero, how it came from Indian mathematics, through the Arab world into European maths. So far, so good.
Seife writes in a very approachable and enjoyable fashion. He does have a major weakness, though, which is a tendency to imply wildly overblown consequences to provide dramatic tension. So, for example, he tells us ‘Zero was a the heart of the battle between East and West.’ Really? That battle had nothing to do with trade, power and religion, it was all about zero? Again we are told that because Western calendars do not have zero (the number line goes straight from -1 to 1), it was an oversight that would cause problems millennia later. These problems seem to amount to the argument over whether 2000 or 2001 was the first year of the new millennium.
The other problem with this book is that at least three quarters of it isn’t about zero. A lot of the early part is about the void and infinity. He goes on and on about the Greeks’ dislike of a vacuum and of the infinite, making this such a big thing that he totally plays down Aristotle’s very important concept of potential infinity. But these aren’t zero. ‘The void’ is the concept that before creation there was a vast, perhaps infinite nothingness into which a creator brought light, matter and life. (Seife never mentions that most of these ‘voids’ actually had water in them in the original myths, because this doesn’t fit with his shaping of the story.) But that isn’t zero. And, of course, infinity isn’t zero either. Nor is the vanishing point in perspective drawing, yet, this too, he equates with zero.
Much of the rest of the book is about infinity, black holes, relativity and wormholes in space. Interesting stuff, quite well presented apart from the very dated looking line drawings, but covered better in other books – and in the end not about zero. So, it’s a real paradox. It is a good, readable book, even if the author is given to grand gestures, but most of it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. If you want a book that concentrates more on the subject, take a look at Kaplan’s – if you want a whistle stop tour of infinity, black holes et al with some zero thrown in (and a lot of woffle about infinity and the void) this is the one for you.
Review by Brian Clegg

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